VATICAN CITY – U.S. President George W. Bush is coming to the Vatican for his first formal audience with Pope Benedict XVI, a meeting seen on both sides as immensely important.
Vatican officials said the June 9 encounter would give the pope and the president a chance to sit down for a survey of dramatic situations around the world, including Iraq, where thousands of Christians have been forced to flee.
The Bush administration believes the audience will highlight the shared values and common objectives of the Vatican and the United States.
In an interview June 1 with Catholic News Service, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Francis Rooney, said the meeting was “a hugely important reflection” of the president’s respect for the role of the pope and Vatican agencies around the world.
“It opens up opportunities for doing good in the world … by leveraging our mutual values and interests in promoting human dignity and religious liberty and for broadening all freedoms,” Rooney said.
One specific area of common concern is global terrorism, Rooney said.
“Certainly, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the use of religion as an excuse for terror are areas the Holy Father has spoken clearly about,” he said.
Vatican officials said one sure topic would be the fate of Iraqi Christians, who have faced increasing violence and discrimination since the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003 and the overthrow of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Rooney said the Bush administration is also troubled that thousands of Christians have left Iraq.
“The whole reason we’re in Iraq is to try to build a country in which all the people of Iraq can lead a peaceful life,” Rooney said.
As for the pope’s recent comment that “nothing positive” was coming from Iraq, the ambassador said that should not be read as a blanket criticism of U.S. operations there.
“I don’t think the Holy Father was indicting the nation-building, democracy- and freedom-building and institutional development aspects of the coalition’s work,” Rooney said.
“I think he was rightly – and how can you argue? – reflecting on the sadness of the continued violence being perpetrated by the few against the many,” he said.
Global economics could also be an important topic during Bush’s meeting with the pope and in separate talks with the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
Bush will come to Rome immediately after participating in a G-8 summit in Germany, where the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations were to discuss, among other things, proposals to increase aid to developing countries.
Pope Benedict has strongly encouraged countries to implement the Millennium Development Goals, a plan that aims to cut global poverty in half by 2015. To accomplish this, richer countries have been asked to increase development aid to 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product.
The Bush administration has endorsed the goals but balked at supporting numerical aid targets.
Rooney said that position was based on the principle that “you can’t necessarily apply a rigid mathematical formula to economies and circumstances that are radically different in scale and type.”
“You’ve got to factor in the private charities, NGOs and things like that, where the United States is far and away the world leader,” he said.
“The United States is the world leader in private charity and generosity to underprivileged and disadvantaged people. No country gives more,” Rooney said.
The ambassador noted that Bush recently had asked Congress for $30 billion toward fighting the global AIDS crisis, a doubling of the previous U.S. commitment.
That’s an area Rooney said the Vatican and the Bush administration were working on “parallel tracks” to arrive at the same goal – alleviating the suffering of the sick, particularly in Africa.
Perhaps to underline his appreciation for faith-based private charity, the president will pay a visit to the Rome headquarters of the Sant’Egidio Community. The community has been one of the church’s most active humanitarian agencies, running soup kitchens and immigrant assistance programs in Rome and sponsoring a major anti-AIDS project in Africa.
“These are all important things, and they are the kinds of things that are important to the president, too,” Rooney said.
The success of a pope-president meeting cannot always be measured by official statements or speeches on the day of the encounter. Weeks of planning go into such an encounter, accompanied by a proliferation of U.S.-Vatican contacts and exchange of briefing papers on important topics.
When diplomacy is put in motion, related projects are sometimes given a boost. Some believe the pope-president encounter could favor the chances for a papal visit to the United Nations and the United States sometime next year.
Vatican officials, who spoke off the record, said there were no burning U.S.-Vatican issues on the agenda for the papal audience. At least the public part of the meeting, they said, would probably focus on areas of shared concerns and shared values.
Privately, the situation of Christians in various parts of the world, including China, may also come up in the talks, but the Vatican does not want to encourage a public criticism of China at this delicate moment, when a papal letter on the church in China is expected to be released soon.